A few months ago, as part of a benchmark essay for my eighth period class, I was asked a question (the one in the title), and it left my mind reeling. I can’t remember what exactly I wrote on that benchmark, but I turned the issue over in my head for long after the forty minute period was over. Were all artists creative? Was I?
Though deceptively simple, the core of the question, for me, became this: what is creativity, and how can we measure it? The discussion cast a light on doubts and insecurities that had been ricocheting around at the back of my skull for years. Were all artists creative? If not, what determined which ones were? And as a writer, how was I meant to know whether I was creative enough? The dictionary definition (the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work) wasn’t good enough; I needed to know whether it was a process or a product, measured by what you put in or by what you get out of it.
The culture surrounding creativity, both in education and in society as a whole, teaches us that it’s an innate quality, something which certain people possess in large quantities and others lack altogether. We learn that some people possess so much of it that they are “creatives,” wild, passionate, and often temperamental souls with an inexplicable drive to contribute to the world’s body of art, literature, drama, or music (for the most part, we’re only taught to associate creativity with those few fields). We learn in childhood that creativity is something to be valued and embraced, but the older we grow, the more the focus shifts from taking risks and exploring questions to succeeding on tests and avoiding mistakes.
There’s also a tendency to quantify the creativity of an artist according to the success of their work. The most famous poets (Dickinson, Poe, Keats, Shakespeare) are the most creative; the lesser-known ones, less so. In fact, our culture imbues us with the belief that “true creativity” (the kind we associate with muses and lightbulbs) is only accessible to those few people who we deem creative geniuses. It imbues us with the belief that, just as most people will not be geniuses, most people will not be creatives.
Creativity (as society defines it) means something rare and magical. It means producing one remarkable work after another. It means channeling some sort of divine, inhuman energy which is inaccessible to the general populace and gives its wielder the ability to produce a masterpiece with no effort at all.
As romantic and enchanting as it feels, this cultural perception of the creative mind doesn’t line up at all with my own experience with creativity. Sure, words and ideas flow sometimes, but far more often, I spend hours poring over a single paragraph or a single line, trying to mold the words on the page into a shape that resonates. What’s more, when we listen to the greatest of the great, these so-called “creatives,” talk about their life’s work, not one of them mentions anything about that elusive magic of inspiration that they’re supposedly in possession of. Instead, Oscar Wilde proudly declares that he has spent all morning putting in a comma and all afternoon taking it out. James Joyce advises us that “errors are the portals of discovery”. Hemingway tells us that he has rewritten the ending of A Farewell to Arms over thirty-nine times (and it is later discovered to be forty-seven).
Personally, I prefer a much simpler definition of the term “creativity”: to be creative is not to produce great work, or to have great skill with a paintbrush, or to change the world with your art. To be creative is simply to create, simply to embrace the process of creation. To be creative is to experiment, to be passionate, to be not just willing, but actually eager, to take risks and put yourself out there. To be creative is to embrace failure as an opportunity rather than a setback, to be genuinely fascinated by, and wholly dedicated to, whatever pursuit you choose. Creativity isn’t an innate ability so much as it’s a mindset and a process, and while it’s certainly present in the arts, it’s also present in the sciences, in the humanities, in sports and music and academia and every other discipline you can imagine (though society usually calls it “innovation” or “discovery” there).
Nearly all of them discuss setbacks just as much as successes—they speak about failure as though it’s inevitable and welcome. There’s no evidence of “genius” as society defines it; there’s talent, yes, but more than that, there’s passion and risk and an earnest desire to learn and to try.
Stephen King says in his writing guide and memoir that if you sit around waiting for inspiration to strike, then you’ll be sitting around waiting forever. As with any art form, you gain proficiency in writing by exposing yourself to a lot of it, trying it yourself, and being willing to fail (all of which happens naturally when you’re passionate).
Creatives themselves are telling us that it has nothing to do with inspiration or brilliance and everything to do with engaging with what they love and embracing their own potential to put new ideas and perspectives into the world.
When we conflate creativity with the final product of creativity, when we look at a play like Death of a Salesman or a poem like The Waste Land and assume that the author produced it all in a single night after being struck by a sudden flash of almost otherworldly inspiration, we bury the reality of the creative process. In reality, those works are the product of years upon years and drafts upon drafts, countless hours spent writing and rewriting and rewriting and polishing and then scrapping everything and beginning again from scratch. They aren’t brilliant because their authors possessed a “creative spirit”; no muse descended from up above, and no sudden lightbulb of inspiration suddenly brought the whole world into sharp clarity. They’re brilliant because their authors engaged in the process of creativity and failed a thousand times before they succeeded.
Creativity is engagement in the process of creating. It isn’t quantifiable; it just is. And as poetic as it sounds to describe it as magical, it’s no more elusive than buttered toast or scrambled eggs or ripped jeans. It has very little to do with the product, the final, polished piece, and everything to do with the process, the risk-taking, the invention, the constant rhythm of failing and learning and trying and trying again.
Creativity isn’t synonymous with constant success in an artistic field; in fact, I’d say that it’s synonymous with failure. Creativity isn’t synonymous with genius, but it is the path to what we call genius. To bring it back to the question at hand: yes, I believe that all artists are creative, regardless of how well-known or critically acclaimed their work is, because all artists engage in the process of creation.
I'm a 19 year old college student in New Haven, Connecticut.